Cheap Energy

In historical terms, energy is very very cheap, so cheap that it is quite difficult to make accurate comparisons.

Let’s survey some transitions that have occurred in human use of energy.

Pre-human great apes, like all other animals, used only the energy derived from food they consumed, and hence ultimately derived from current solar output as captured by photosynthesis.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, possibly before Homo sapiens proper emerged, our ancestors learned to control fire, for cooking and tool-making, and raising the possibility of heating enclosed living spaces (though this didn’t happen until much later). At this point our overall energy use is no longer limited by what we can eat. Nor is it limited by current solar output: trees can be harvested that have taken many years to grow. It is entirely possible for a culture to deforest its landbase and collapse.

In a later transformative event, we learned to harness large animals for traction (including pulling plows) and for riding. This gave access to more power, or more speed, than we could muster on our own, but all this energy was still ultimately derived from photosynthesis.

And then there is fossil fuel, whereby we take advantage of biological and geological processes operating on very long time scales that have concentrated many years’ worth of photosynthetic energy into an easily burned form. The use of peat and outcrop coal goes back millennia, but of course things really took off in the last few centuries, with coal mining and later oil and gas drilling.

Although fossil fuel has been and still is used directly to produce heat, our desire for it has been greatly amplified by other modes of use: to produce motion, and via motion to produce electricity.

One way to understand the current cheapness of energy is to contemplate the difference between possession and use of a car, something available in the ‘rich’ part of the world to all but the poorest citizens, and the likely state of things if no fossil fuel had ever existed: as in past centuries, if you were sufficiently rich you might own one or more horses, to ride or pull carriages, and if you were less well-off you could hire a horse or horse-drawn conveyance on an occasional basis. Horses need feeding: it takes about five acres in grass to feed a horse. And you do not get speeds of 70 miles an hour from a horse.


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3 Responses to Cheap Energy

  1. You mention, by my count, 3 important innovations: cooking and burning, animal domestication, and fossil fuels. The first two do not seem, in most cases, to carry large scale the possibility of large scale destruction or devastation. Conceivably, one can burn down a forest but the forest will return, if in some form or other. Conceivably, animals can trample fields, overuse the fields, and create all kinds of social erosion. Yet the fields, if left alone, tend to restore themselves in time. If I understand you rightly, only fossil fuel usage carries the potential of ‘changing the equation’ such that the scale of time is warped and the power of change is immense and rapid. With respect to the immensity of change, we also have no idea whether it is ‘final’ or not. On this score, we are epistemically uncertain.

    You do seem to be implying some notion of natural justice: some reciprocity or harmony principle. Yes? I’m wondering, that is, what general lesson or lessons you draw from this brief history of energy use.

    • dysangelist says:

      The exploitation of fossil fuels is, of course, central to my point that energy is very cheap today; I included the earlier discoveries for background and context. For real completeness, I should have discussed wind and water as power sources, and the more recent discoveries of photovoltaic power, solar heat engines, geothermal and tidal power. And then there is fission, which was famously supposed to produce electricity “too cheap to meter”. With the true renewable sources, the historical problem has been that they cannot compete with the cheapness of fossil fuel; going forward there are important questions of Energy Returned on Energy Invested.

      Burning wood can certainly cause environmental damage. It seems likely that some cultures have collapsed through overuse of local wood resources; some have realized the problem in time and instituted more sustainable practices; some have been saved by the discovery of coal without having to confront the problem.

      There is much more to be said if we are to take the discussion into the realm of morality. For now, I will confess that It is a cause of great sadness to me that we seem unlikely to confront our real situation in time to avoid collapse and its attendant woes. I would like to see today’s young people start a revolution to demand that we stop destroying their future.

      • Thanks for this in-depth reply. My sense is that you have a few more posts in you on these particular subjects.

        As you know, I’m especially keen to hear about the moral crisis confronting us today.

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